P.B.S. Pinchback: America’s First Black Governor

It was this past week in 1872 when Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback became Governor of Louisiana and in doing so became the first black Governor of any American state.  It took over a hundred years for another African-American to become a governor when Douglas Wilder was elected Governor of Virginia in 1990.  With Barack Obama having just been elected as the first black President of the United States, it seemed appropriate to take a moment and remember another black politician who made history in this country.


Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was born on May 10, 1837 to William Pinchback, a successful Virginia planter and Eliza Stewart, his former slave.  The younger Pinchback was born in Macon, Georgia during the family’s move from Virginia to their new, much larger plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi.  In Mississippi, young Pinchback grew up in relatively affluent surroundings on a large plantation.  At the age of nine, he and his older brother, Napoleon, were sent by his parents to Ohio to receive a formal education at Cincinnati’s Gilmore School.  Pinchback’s education was cut short, however, when he returned to Mississippi in 1848 because his father had become seriously ill.  Following the death of his father, shortly after his return, the paternal relatives were vengeful and disinherited Pinchback’s mother and her children.  To evade the possibility that the northern Pinchbacks would legally appropriate the children as slave property, Pinchback’s mother fled with all five to Cincinnati.  Shortly, thereafter, Napoleon became mentally ill, leaving 12 year old Pinckney as sole-provider for his mother and four siblings.


Pinchback found work as a cabin boy on a canal boat and worked his way up to become a steward on the riverboats which ran the Ohio, Mississippi and Red Rivers.  During these years, he sent as much money as possible to Cincinnati to help support his mother and his siblings.


In 1860, when Pinchback was 23, he married Nina Hawthorne, a 16 year old from Memphis.  When the Civil War broke out the following year, Pinchback hoped to fight on the side of the Union troops against the South.  To Pinchback, the main issue in the conflict between North and South was slavery and his heritage gave him an insight into the status of both blacks and whites in the country.  In 1862, he made his way into New Orleans, which was then under occupation by Northern troops.  There, he raised several companies of the Corps d’Afrique, part of the Louisiana National Guard, and was the only officer of African American descent to serve in that organization.


In 1863, he had been passed over twice for promotion and growing tired of the prejudice he encountered at every turn, resigned from the Guard.  When the war ended and the slaves were emancipated, he and his wife moved to Alabama, eager to test out their new freedom as full citizens.  However, racial tensions in their new surroundings were shockingly vicious.  Occupying Union forces shared equally prejudiced views as those of their former Confederate enemies and would sometimes put on Confederate uniforms at night and terrorize the newly freed blacks.  The movements of blacks were also restricted by the so-called “black codes” across the South and it became obvious that white Southern politicians were going to do everything possible to prevent them from gaining any political power.  Pinchback’s political career was born out of this hostile climate.  He began speaking out at public meetings and soon became a well-known orator who urged former slaves to organize politically.


Pinchback eventually returned to New Orleans with his family and upon settling there, organized the Fourth Ward Republican Club.  Now a confirmed Republican, he was elected a delegate to the Republican State Convention and even spoke before the assembly.  His orations helped win him election to the party’s Central Executive Committee.


During the State Constitutional Convention of 1867-68, Pinchback accepted the candidacy for State Senator on the Republican ticket.  He campaigned vigorously for both himself as well as for his close political ally, Henry Clay Warmoth, another radical Republican and Pinchback’s mentor.  When Pinchback narrowly lost his bid for the state senate seat, he charged voting fraud.  The newly convened legislature agreed and allowed him to take office.


Pinchback joined a Louisiana State Senate that held 42 Representatives of African descent—half of the chamber—and 7 of 36 seats in the Senate, and his battles against the state’s racist Democrats brought him enemies.


In 1871, Warmoth’s Lieutenant Governor, a black physician named Oscar Dunn, died suddenly of pneumonia.  In a bid to thwart Democratic control of the state, Pinchback’s name was put forth by the Warmoth faction as Dunn’s replacement and the Senate elected him by a narrow margin in December of that year.  The Lieutenant Governorship also brought with it the post of President Pro Tempore of the state Senate.  At the time of Pinchback’s taking Louisiana’s second highest political office, the political climate in the state was fractious and violent.


 Pinchback continued in his role as Lieutenant Governor for the rest of 1872, but by the fall of that year, many Republicans in the state had turned on Warmoth and wished to unseat him.  Election results once again came into dispute and Warmoth enacted a special extended legislative session to settle the problem.  Through complicated political maneuverings a House majority ejected Warmoth from his Governor’s post on November 21st.  When Pinchback took the oath of office the following month, the Democrats were naturally enraged to have a man of African descent in the Governor’s chair, but the State Supreme Court upheld the legality of Pinchback’s ascension.


While Pinchback went about fulfilling his duties of acting Governor, formal impeachment proceedings against Warmoth were under way.  Pinchback became the recipient of vicious hate mail from across the country as well as local threats on his life.


When the returns from the November 1872 election came in and were accepted, Republican William Kellogg was declared Governor and was sworn in on January 13, 1873, ending Pinchback’s brief but historical executive stint.  He had held office for only 35 days, but 10 acts of legislation became law during that time.

In that same election, Pinchback had run for a U.S. Congressional seat and in January of 1873 he became a Congressman.  It was a public office he had long coveted and with it he achieved another pioneering accomplishment as the state’s first black Representative to Washington.  His victory was short-lived, however, as opposing factions in the state unseated him by charging election fraud and naming a white candidate instead.  It was the beginning of a reversal of the political gains blacks had achieve since the war’s end.


In 1887, nearing 50 years of age, Pinchback took up the study of law at Straight University and was a member of its first graduating class.  In the 1890’s, he moved with his family to New York City, where he served as a U.S. Marshal from 1892 to 1895.  They later settled in Washington, DC.


Unfortunately, the achievements he had worked toward—mainly the political enfranchisement of blacks—had been reversed by both legal and illegal means.  With the southern Democrats asserting power in the state legislatures, white power was again firmly entrenched in the south.  The number of registered black voters in Louisiana was one indication:  it fell from 130,000 in 1896 to 1300 in just eight years.


Pinchback died in December of 1921 and was buried in the Metairie Ridge Cemetery of New Orleans.  For much of his life, he found himself in unique circumstances because he was of mixed heritage.  On one hand, he was able to achieve some of the education, business opportunities and material comforts normally available only to whites of the day.  However, he was also the victim of discrimination as well.  When asked once of which heritage he drew upon as a source of pride, Pinchback replied, “I don’t think the question is a legitimate one, as I have no control over the matter.  A man’s pride I regard as born of his associations, and mine is, perhaps, no exception to the rule.”


5 thoughts on “P.B.S. Pinchback: America’s First Black Governor

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    It was this past week in 1872 when Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback became Governor of Louisiana and in doing so became the first black Governor of any American state.  It took over a hundred years for another African-American to become a governor wh…

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